Somebody Up There Likes Me (Robert Wise, 1956). By all accounts, this is the film that made Paul Newman a star. The most intriguing thing about that is that his performance here has little of the charismatic verve that drove later work in films like Hud or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It’s a thick, meaty character piece as Newman plays boxer Rocky Graziano as his pummels his way from backstreet destitution to the heavyweight championship of the world. Newman brings integrity to his character’s brutishness, subsuming his natural sparkle in favor of a honest portrayal of simpler man. It’s a fine precursor to Robert De Niro’s work in a similar role decades later. Given that the film is over fifty years old, it’s surprising how well it’s aged, how much of the film’s storytelling could be lifted whole, recreated now and still feel contemporary. That probably speaks more to the quiet ingenuity of Ernest Lehman’s screenplay that the workmanlike ease of Robert Wise’s direction.
Witness for the Prosecution (Billy Wilder, 1957). About as atypical of a film as I’ve ever seen from Billy Wilder, who I regularly cite as the greatest (or at least most underrated) creator of American films for his amazing capability to master a broad range of genres. While he stretches himself, his personal style is always present and that’s the element in short supply in this courtroom drama. As an ailing barrister happily drawn from his sickbed to take on a particularly tricky murder case, Charles Laughton is about the only one afforded the chance to play around with droll Wilderesque dialogue, and it’s no surprise that he delivers it wonderfully. There’s also a fun bit or two for Marlene Dietrich, alluring and imperious as ever. Overall, though, the sheer mechanics of bringing an Agatha Christie to the screen overwhelms the personality of the film. It’s solid, but somewhat spiritless, like it could have been capably directed by any studio toiler.
Baby Mama (Michael McCullers, 2008). It’s haphazard and messy. Sometimes it bears the rushed quality of filmmakers disinterested in their own project. It’s also just funny enough to merit attention and includes a shrewd, witty supporting performance by Steve Martin that inspires thoughts of typing up a forceful letter to him, pleading him to concentrate on these sorts of character acting opportunities and give up on the idea of headlining features altogether. Tina Fey plays a career woman whose biological clock runs up against her faulty biology, inspiring her to seek out a surrogate mother to carry her child. Amy Poehler is the undereducated woman who takes the job, leading to the inevitable unlikely friendship. Fey and Poehler clearly know how to play off of each other and their scenes together have a snap that’s often missing when one of them has to wander away from the partnership to play a scene with someone else.
The Wild Angels (Roger Corman, 1966). B-movie king Roger Corman wanted to make a biker picture. And that’s what he made, without a whit of insight, inspiration or lingering sense of purpose. It’s only notable for the trivia associated with the cast: it was on this film that Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd conceived the daughter who would eventually lap them both in acting abilities, Nancy Sinatra just about kills off a fledgling film career with a dead-eyed performance as a bikers’ moll, and Peter Fonda gets a celluloid spin on a chopper three years before another similar, though far more iconic role. The other 1966 films Corman is credited with producing are Blood Bath, Queen of Blood and The Navy Vs. The Night Monsters, which probably tells you everything you need to know about the level of ambition brought to this project.
Run Fatboy Run (David Schwimmer, 2008). It’s nearly bad enough to make one stop believing in Simon Pegg. It’s not the disappointment of seeing him play a sadly familiar layout Brit, or that the plot revolving around his character’s attempt to win back a lost love by participating in a London marathon is hopelessly insipid. It’s that Pegg’s name is right there in the screenwriting credits, giving him unavoidable responsibility for all the fart jokes and other childish nonsense found between the opening title and the closing credits. If junk like this is the best directing gig that David Schwimmer can get in his post-Friends career, then he should probably stick with playing Greenzo. If Tina Fey won’t hire him back for 30 Rock, there’s always kids’ parties.
(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)